Sleep Care

Insomnia & Melatonin

Insomnia—the inability to fall asleep when desired, remain asleep, or return to sleep easily—affects up to 30-40% of Americans a year, making it one of the most common sleep complaints.  It can last for only a few nights (called acute insomnia), or a month and longer (called chronic insomnia).  Insomnia is more common among the elderly and women.

A variety of sleeping medications are available for treating insomnia symptoms.  As with any medication, however, there can be risks for some side effects to occur.  Because of this, taking supplemental melatonin has become a popular alternative for dealing with insomnia—generally, the most common side effect associated with it is mild drowsiness when it is taken.

What is Melatonin?

Melatonin is a chemical that is made naturally by the body, primarily in the pineal gland (although it can also be produced in other places, such as the retina of the eye).  It is produced during the night and functions to let body tissues know what time it is in the day/night cycle—high levels of melatonin indicate that is it currently a night/dark period, and low levels are found during day/light periods when the individual is awake.  Over the course of the year, overall levels of melatonin in the body help inform the body what the current season is; more melatonin is present during the winter months and less is present during the summer months.

How Does Melatonin Improve Insomnia Symptoms?

For a person struggling with insomnia, taking supplemental melatonin can help improve their ability to fall asleep by helping the body recognize when it is night and appropriate to rest.  Because melatonin is not classified as a drug by the Food and Drug Administration, it is not regulated and there are not specific dosage guidelines for taking it—however, studies have examined a variety of factors related to using melatonin for improving insomnia symptoms.

Melatonin is most effective in improving sleep-onset insomnia (difficulty getting to sleep) compared to other types of insomnia.  Because it functions to let the body know when it is night (and therefore time to sleep), taking melatonin won’t do anything to improve a person’s quality of rest once they’ve fallen asleep.  A 2010 meta-analysis of studies investigating the use of melatonin to treat insomnia found that taking melatonin reduced the time it took a person to fall asleep by an average of about twenty-three minutes, without affecting wake-up times or the overall amount of time a person slept during the night.

The most important consideration in taking melatonin is the time of day it is taken—taking it too early or too late can result in significant differences in how effectively it can improve insomnia symptoms.  A 2010 study examining dosage amounts and administration times found that lower doses of melatonin work most effectively later in the day (about two to four hours before the body naturally starts to produce melatonin as it becomes dark outside).  If taking melatonin, be sure to keep track of when in the day it is being taken and consult with a physician if it doesn’t seem to work effectively.  Lack of properly scheduled sleep times and overexposure to bright light (which can affect the body’s internal clock and natural melatonin production) can also affect how well melatonin works, so developing good sleep hygiene habits is another suggestion for improving melatonin’s effectiveness.

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